Berlin (AFP) -
Russia on Thursday restored critical gas supplies to Europe through Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline after 10 days of maintenance, but uncertainty lingered whether the Kremlin would still trigger an energy crisis on the continent this winter.
'It's working,' a Nord Stream spokesman said, without specifying the amount of gas being delivered.
Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas, had feared that Moscow would not reopen the pipeline after the scheduled work and accused Moscow of using energy as a 'weapon'.
The showdown came amid the worst tensions in several years over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Germany believes Russia is squeezing supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the war.
Klaus Mueller, head of Germany's energy regulator, the Federal Network Agency, said that by Thursday morning gas flows were on track to return to 40 percent of the pipeline's capacity -- the same reduced level as before the maintenance work.
'The political security and the 60 percent reduction (of supply) since mid-June unfortunately remain,' he said on Twitter.
Enduring German reliance on Russian gas coupled with distinctly negative signals from Moscow have raised the pressure on Europe's top economy.
A total shutdown of imports or a sharp reduction in the flow from east to west could have a catastrophic effect, shutting factories and forcing households to turn down the heat.
Even the resumption of 40 percent of supplies would be insufficient to ward off energy shortages in Europe this winter, according to experts.
The IMF warned on Wednesday that a halt in supplies could slash Germany's 2022 GDP by 1.5 percent.
- 'Will fulfil' -
Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom cut flows to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea to some 40 percent of capacity in recent weeks, blaming the absence of a Siemens gas turbine that was undergoing repairs in Canada.
The repaired turbine is reportedly en route to Russia and expected to arrive on Sunday at the earliest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted this week that Gazprom would meet all its delivery obligations.
'Gazprom has fulfilled, is fulfilling and will fulfil its obligations in full,' Putin told reporters in Tehran after holding talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey.
He warned, however, that as another gas turbine was due to be sent for maintenance at the end of this month, energy flows could fall to 20 percent of capacity from next week.
Since Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24 and the West responded with sanctions against Moscow, Russia has begun reducing its gas deliveries to prevent EU countries from replenishing reserves.
Gazprom has already blamed cuts in gas deliveries to Europe on 'force majeure', two major German customers said this week, adding to fears about further disruptions.
Force majeure is a legal measure allowing companies to free themselves from contractual obligations in circumstances beyond their control.
- 'Blackmail' -
The German government has rejected Gazprom's turbine explanation as an 'excuse'. But Berlin acknowledges it would be largely powerless to dispute the force majeure claim to be awarded damages from Russia.
As of Wednesday, German gas reserves were about 65 percent according to official estimates. Experts say that would leave Germany critically exposed if supplies via Nord Stream 1 didn't resume before cold weather returns.
The European Commission on Wednesday urged EU countries to reduce their demand for natural gas by 15 percent over the coming winter months, and to give it special powers to force through needed demand cuts if Russia severs the gas lifeline.
'Russia is blackmailing us,' Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, told reporters.
'Russia is using energy as a weapon and therefore, in any event, whether it's a partial major cut off of Russian gas or total cut off... Europe needs to be ready.'
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who has said he is taking shorter showers to save energy, stressed that industry -- but also consumers -- would have to do their part to reduce Russia's power in the current standoff.
'A decisive bit of leverage is reducing gas use,' he said. 'We have to do everything in our power to work on that.'